Studio International

Published 17/05/2021

Shara Hughes – interview: ‘I wanted the works to feel like figures you would visit at church, something divine’

The American artist Shara Hughes talks about the new paintings in her exhibition at the Garden Museum in London and the novelty of exhibiting in a church


Shara Hughes’s paintings are dreamscapes born of imagination and intuition. Her landscapes, with their neon hues and flattened perspective, at times border on the abstract, but never fully depart from the physical world. Bodies of water reflect alien surroundings, trees retain their upright structures and the strangely coloured skies hold estimations of strangely coloured clouds.

For her solo show at the Garden Museum in London, the Brooklyn-based Hughes (b1981, Atlanta) has taken flowers as her main subject, affording these fragile forms heroic statures in the museum’s main building, a deconsecrated medieval church. Four large paintings (all 2021) hang under the elegant gothic arches of the nave, their bright colours accenting the vibrant stained-glass windows. Through these works, the viewer is miniaturised as the flowers tower above the horizon, like exotic goliaths from other worlds.


Studio International spoke to Hughes about her exhibition at the Garden Museum in London and what it is that draws her to the natural world.

Emily Spicer: Who inspires your work? Are there any artists who influence your approach or use of colour?

Shara Hughes: I am influenced by so many artists, it is hard to choose just a few. If we are speaking about colour in particular, a few favourites I would have to mention would be Tal R, Milton Avery, Paul Gauguin, Chris Ofili, Howard Hodgkin and Austin Eddy.

ES: Do you work from memory or do you use source material?

I don’t really look at anything other than artists for my source material. I will sometimes look up something on Google like “most poisonous plant” or “eclipse”. But I rarely – if ever – work by looking at images. I’ll briefly do a search to get the general shape of a flower, but I just keep the idea of it in my head and then see how it turns out from memory, or I’ll move to a different path if I didn’t have a spark of inspiration from the search.


ES: I have read that there is a psychological aspect to your work. Can you tell me a little about how this finds its way into your paintings?

SH: I don’t think I use any proper psychological thoughts or ideas in the work. I believe it just happens naturally. I’m making up the images from start to finish, so there has to be some connection between how I’m picturing it in my head and transferring it to the canvas. I try to stay out of my own way so these subconscious happenings will come through.


ES: Your exhibition at the Garden Museum includes four large canvases, each focused on a different flower. What drew you to these flowers in particular?

SH: At first, it was about the shapes and colours. I was so drawn to the beauty of the slipper orchid that I painted in Attraction Contraption that it almost took me over – hence the title. With my painting Hard Hats, I wanted the small flower to be larger than life. The umbrella orchid will protect itself from weather threats by covering its tiny flowers with the large leaves, as if it is wearing a hard hat. In Pop, I think I just let loose. The poppies really feel as if they are exploding off the canvas. I wanted that painting to feel wild and free. And finally, with Soft and Strong, the dandelion painting, I was interested in this flower we see mostly as a weed. It is one of the strongest weeds there is. The minute its seeds break off from the centre and float away, it replants itself and multiplies. I love the idea that this is the strongest and softest weed. Each painting takes on a different personality that is amplified by its size.


ES: Do plants sometimes stand in for people in your paintings?

SH: I wouldn’t necessarily say that plants do, but I have often thought of the flowers and trees as figures. Sometimes, even a wave or a sun in the painting takes on a personality, so it varies depending on how the work turns out.

ES: Did the exhibition space inside the deconsecrated church influence the work you made for this exhibition?

SH: Yes. The structure and the nature of being inside some kind of sacred space, like a church, really intimidated me at first. But once we decided to hang the large paintings within the nave, I got excited at the thought of these works being something that you go to in search of answers, just as if you were going to church. I wanted the works to feel like figures you would visit at church, like something divine or regal, that you look up to in admiration. The stained-glass windows and the light in the space, gives air to the works, allowing them to feel as if they are floating in the space like angels or something from the past that has come back to visit.


ES: The exhibition also includes smaller landscapes. Some look like magical places, others as though they could be real locations. How do you start a landscape and what influences the outcome?

SH: I don’t have any plans when I start a landscape; it is usually very subconscious and intuitive. I merely play around with colour and texture, whether it’s a work on paper, or a painting, and then something clicks and I start to organise it into a landscape that doesn’t necessarily identify with a specific place.


ES: You are based in Brooklyn, but your paintings seem inspired by the natural world. Does painting provide a kind of escape from city life? Or does nature hold a deeper meaning in your work?

SH: I think painting provides an escape from wherever you are, no matter what. Even for the viewer. I don’t think I’m painting landscapes wishing I was in nature per se, but it’s more a way to connect with something within me that I want to see visually expressed.

ES: What will you be working on next?

SH: I have a solo show in Zurich at the Eva Presenhuber gallery, starting at the end of May. After that, I will have three more solo exhibitions. The first will be at the Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis, the second will be at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai in November 2021, and the third at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in September 2022. Also a few publications are, hopefully, coming out in the next few weeks. 

Shara Hughes runs at the Garden Museum, London, from 17 May to 5 June 2021. Shara Hughes: Return of the Light will be at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich, from 29 May to 22 July 2021. Her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis, runs from 3 September 2021 to 20 February 2022.